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Peace Talks Echoed By Violence

The start of the second round of talks in Paris was marked by a sudden escalation in violence in Kosovo, with bombs in two busy Kosovo towns and a major influx of Serbian forces.
By Gjeraqina Tuhina

The twin bomb blasts in the Kosovo towns of Kosovska Mitrovica and Podujevo on March 13 together killed nine and wounded more than 100 people, many critically. Almost at the very same time, the Albanian delegation to the current Paris talks was arriving at Pristina airport to catch a flight to France, and the restart of peace talks there.

For the delegation, the news of the bombings was a message to take to the talks, supposed scene for the signing of a political settlement and an end to a year of fighting in the troubled province.

But Kosovar Albanians and Serbs differed on the meaning of the message.

The Albanian language media quickly drew parallels with the shelling of Sarajevo's Markale street market on August 29, 1995, an attack that killed 41 people, but which finally brought the massed forces of NATO down on the Bosnian Serbs and drove them to a settlement at Dayton.

The Serbian media also echoed the Markale experience, accusing 'Albanian terrorists'--their code for the guerillas of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)--of deliberately bombing their own people in a bid to draw NATO into the fight on their side. The Bosnian Serbs made a similar claim in 1994.

The Kosovar Albanians say the bombers were Serbian, "with the only aim to obstruct the conference". They cite last summer's precedent, when the Kosovar Albanians withdrew from talks in protest at new attacks in the Decani region, apparently timed specifically to collapse the talks, despite the urging of Western mediators.

Commenting on the Mitrovica and Podujevo blasts, Xhemajl Mustafa, spokesman for Kosovar Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, recalled a similar attack in Urosevac (Ferizaj), again just as the Albanian delegation left for talks in Rambouillet, France, last month.

"This is yet more proof that these explosions are the instruments of the Belgrade regime, in hand to influence the peaceful talks in France," he said.

Locals in Podujevo and Mitrovica, north west of Pristina, said the normally ever-present Serbian paramilitary police were unusually scarce in the moments before the explosions. One bomb went off near the main market at the busiest time of the week, and the other near the town post office. The police are back in force now.

"These acts of terrorism further underline the necessity and urgency for an international agreement to help bring the current conflict to an end, and to prevent a repeat of the tragedies that we have witnessed in Podujevo and Mitrovica," said a spokesman for the OSCE's Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM).

Among the killed and injured were a number of women and children. "These devices, containing a considerable amount of explosives, were targeted at crowded public places, at the busiest time of day, with the clear aim of causing the maximum amount of civilian injuries and deaths," charged the OSCE KVM.

OSCE chairman and Norwegian foreign minister Knut Vollebaek condemned the Podujevo and Mitrovica attacks as "terrorist acts".

A successful outcome in Paris this week will bring NATO to Kosovo; a failure, like last October's Milosevic-Holbrooke pact will only bring more fighting, more killing, more refugees and possibility of NATO air strikes, with unpredictable consequences in tow.

But there is little reason to think that the OSCE or even a NATO presence will be able to stop the bombers if they choose to go on attacking after a deal is done.

Despite the destruction in the two towns, this time the Albanians did not hesitate and went to France, "only to sign an agreement," as Rugova put it. But this week's restart of negotiation in Paris continues to raise tensions all round.

Bombings aside, the start of negotiations are frequently accompanied by other destructive developments on the ground. OSCE verification teams noted that the new round of talks have been preceded by a massive increase in Serbian military and paramilitary police deployment.

More than seven times the number of forces permitted by the October deal is now moving across the province. On the first day of this week's conference in Paris, ethnic Albanian sources reported more than 100 military vehicles with heavy weapons arriving in Kosovo from Serbia, just as fighting began anew in various areas of Kosovo.

On Wednesday the US reported that the Yugoslav military had deployed thousands of troops and heavy weapons, with up to 21,000 soldiers along the border with Kosovo, plus 18,000 in the province itself.

"They are certainly bracing for war," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon told reporters in Washington this week. He said Serb forces have moved seven additional tanks into Kosovo to support 96 tanks already deployed there and 30 additional tanks held back in reserve.

Gjeraqina Tuhina is a Pristina-based journalist with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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